I’ve finally read How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill, and as I expected, it contains a number of big ideas. Among them:
The Irish were the first people to be Christianized without also being RomanizedSt. Patrick, circa 450 A.D.. Celtic traditions were not jettisoned when Christianity was adopted, and this resulted in a rather pragmatic approach to religion — for example, the Irish pioneered the concept of being able to confess privately and repeatedly for the same sin. In Romanized Christianity, confession until then had been public, and forgiveness granted only once. It used to be two strikes and you’re out of the Church, excommunicated, set to burn in hell for all eternity. To the Irish, this was rather harsh: “We’re all sinners, all the time,” was the official excuse, though it more likely had to do with Celts being a lot looser sexually than those prudish Romans. It’s thanks to the Irish, then, that heaven isn’t emptyI’m sure there’s an Irish joke to be made from this historical nugget.
How about: “An Irishman goes to confession: ‘Forgive me father, for I have not sinned.’”.
But their main contribution to civilization was the preservation of Roman and Greek texts amid the collapse of the Roman empire. The Irish had replaced the Christian tradition of martyrdom with that of “green martyrs,” or monks, whose own recent Celtic roots made them receptive to pagan literature. These monks set about collecting and copying such manuscripts — without censorship — in their remote Irish monasteries, while the barbarians thoroughly brutalized the continent.
These copyists acted as meme-promoters, keeping classical ideas alive until they could once again be let loose on a critical mass of fertile minds in the next renaissance. This is how the memes at the foundation of modern western thought skirted extinction — our knowledge of Plato comes to us through the ages via a thin but sinewy thread that extends through Ireland. Eventually, the Irish monks re-evangelized the continent, and made sure to take the classics with them. By the time the Vikings were raiding monasteries on Ireland, the texts were being kept safe by Irish monks as far afield as Italy.
And while copying was their main task, these monks could not help but populate the margins with annotations, comments, approval or mockery. Cahill writes (in 1995) about what might have motivated them:
[The monks] did not see themselves as drones. Rather, they engaged the text they were working on, tried to comprehend it after their fashion, and, if possible, add to it, even improve on it. In this dazzling new culture, a book was not an isolated document on a dusty shelf; book truly spoke to book, and writer to scribe, and scribe to reader, from one generation to the next. These books were, as we would say in today’s jargon, open, interfacing, and intertextual — glorious literary smorgasbords in which the scribe often tried to include a bit of everything, from every era, language, and style known to him.
That was, effectively, blogging, circa 700 A.D.
Of course, today, we bloggers have been relieved of the task of manually copying the memes we deem worthy of promotion (and disparagement); the cost of copying information is now negligibleIt is even more efficient merely to refer to the texts in question with a link (although at the risk of the link going bad).. Blogs are the new marginalia, our annotated lives, riffs on our cultural and political patrimony (like this post), asides on the political drama of the day, knowing winks at perpetuity…
To illustrate the similarity: Here is a magnificent journal entry, disguised as a poem in the margin of a 9th century manuscript on Virgil in a Swiss monastery:
I and Pangur Ban my catHere is the original old Irish, together with a literal translation. The text on the right is copied from here.
‘Tis a like task we are at:
Hunting mice is his delight,
Hunting words I sit all night.
Better far than praise of men
‘Tis to sit with book and pen;
Pangur bears me no ill-will,
He too plies his simple skill.
‘Tis a merry task to see
At our tasks how glad are we,
When at home we sit and find
Entertainment to our mind.
Oftentimes a mouse will stray
In the hero Pangur’s way;
Oftentimes my keen thought set
Takes a meaning in its net.
‘Gainst the wall he sets his eye
Full and fierce and sharp and sly;
‘Gainst the wall of knowledge I
All my little wisdom try.
When a mouse darts from its den,
O how glad is Pangur then!
O what gladness do I prove
When I solve the doubts I love!
So in peace our task we ply,
Pangur Ban, my cat, and I;
In our arts we find our bliss,
I have mine and he has his.
Practice every day has made
Pangur perfect in his trade;
I get wisdom day and night
Turning darkness into light.
Now that, surely, rivals Lileks on a good day. Cahill furnishes other examples — here is one monk’s opinion of a Celtic epic:
I who have copied down this story, or more accurately fantasy, do not credit the details of the story, or fantasy. Some things in it are devilish lies, and some are poetical figments, some seem possible and others not; some are for the enjoyment of idiots.”
He could just as well have been writing on Bush’s reasons for invading Iraq, no? One final example:
“Sad it is, little parti-colored white book, for a day will surely come when someone will say over your page: ‘the hand that wrote this is no more.’”
Amen; his work was important; it is still read and treasured; and it’s a good omen for today’s blogs.